Ronit Elkabetz, Diva of Israeli Cinema and Prolific Actress, Dies at 51

In the span of only 25 years, Elkabetz grew to become one of the most respected Israeli creators, pushing Sephardi women to the cinematic forefront.

Yuval Aharoni

Ronit Elkabetz, an award-winning actress, director and scriptwriter who gave Mizrahi women a voice with the “Viviane Amsalem ” trilogy she wrote and directed with her brother, died overnight at 51. The cause was cancer.  

Over the course of her career, Elkabetz won three Ophir awards – the Israeli equivalent of the Oscar – for best actress, for her performances in the films “Sh’Chur,” “Late Marriage” and “The Band’s Visit.”

“She’s the greatest actress and director in the world,” director Keren Yedaya said. “Totally. It was a great privilege to have known her and to be her friend, to be with her. What anguish, what a waste. How many projects were still there, how much love she still had to give.”

Elkabetz was born in Be’er Sheva in 1964, the eldest of four children, one of whom is director and screenwriter Shlomi Elkabetz. She studied acting at the Hadar Theater.

Her first film appearance, which launched her acting career, was in the starring role of Daniel Wachsmann’s “The Appointed,” playing opposite Shuli Rand. She was 26 at the time.

Amit Berlowitz

Two years later, she appeared in Gidi Dar’s “Eddie King” (1992). That was followed by “Sh’Chur” (1994), directed by Shmuel Hasfari and Hanna Azoulay Hasfari, for which she won her first Ophir.

Yedaya, who cast Elkabetz in the leading role in two of her films, “Or” (“My Treasure”) and “Jaffa,” said Tuesday that she and Ronit “fell in love” more than 10 years ago at a Parisian café.

“They organized a meeting for us, and we stayed there together all night until dawn; we couldn’t bring ourselves to part," Yedaya said. "Since then, she has been my best friend, my beloved, my sister, the wisest, funniest, most beautiful, most talented woman in the world, to whom people come for advice about love and art and life and film. We’ve gone through so much together.”

Michal Aviad, who cast Elkabetz as the lead in her film “Invisible,” said Elkabetz taught her film.

“She was one of the wisest women I ever met. Her understanding of how people act and how their relationships are expressed – in a look, in a touch, in a sentence – was exceptional and full of sensitivity, to the point that I was astonished each time anew to discover how much she knows about life,” Aviad said.

“She was a total actress, coming to rehearsals and film shoots with notebooks full of comments in small writing. I remember that once, I came to her house and saw the script in her bathroom, because while she was drying herself off, she would read it again and write a few notes for herself,” Aviad added.

“She had an enormous heart, she was terribly funny and she knew how to distinguish good from bad with brilliant clarity. And her heart was in the right place – politically, morally, as a feminist, as a Mizrahi, whatever it was,” Aviad said, referring to Jews of Middle Eastern and North African origin.

The film that marked Elkabetz’s breakthrough onto the international stage was “Late Marriage” (2001). She won her second best-actress Ophir for her role in Dover Koshashvili’s film, which enjoyed commercial success in many countries, including the United States, Britain and France. Elkabetz played a divorced Moroccan-Israeli, a single mother, who has an affair with a man several years younger (Lior Ashkenazi), whose Georgian-Israeli family doesn’t look kindly on their relationship.

In 2003, Elkabetz appeared in Amos Gitai’s “Alila,” and a year later she starred in a film that became a milestone in her career: Yedaya’s “Or.” In that effort, Elkabetz played a woman trying to extricate herself from prostitution by cleaning houses. She relies on her 17-year-old daughter (Dana Ivgy), who will move mountains to get her mother out of streetwalking.

The film opened at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Camera d’Or prize for best debut. That established Elkabetz as one of Israel’s leading actresses and one of its best known and admired ambassadors overseas.

Elkabetz made the switch from actress to filmmaker in 2005 with “To Take a Wife,” which she wrote and directed with her brother Shlomi. The film was the first installment in a trilogy they made together.

Alongside writing and directing, Elkabetz also played the film’s heroine, Viviane, who also appeared in the next two installments of the trilogy. The film debuted at the Venice Film Festival and won several international prizes.

Two years later, she starred in Eran Kolirin’s “The Band’s Visit” (2007), which was widely acclaimed both in Israel and abroad. She won her third Ophir for that role.

Alongside her dominant role in Israeli cinema, Elkabetz also starred in French films, including some directed by André Téchiné and Fanny Ardant.

“Shiva,” the second installment of the trilogy she made with her brother, opened Critics’ Week at the Cannes Film Festival in 2008. It won critical acclaim and commercial success, as well as numerous prizes both in Israel and abroad. The following year, Elkabetz starred in Yedaya’s “Jaffa” (2009), and two years later, in Aviad’s film “Invisible” (2011).

In 2014, the third installment of her trilogy with her brother, “Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem,” debuted at the Cannes Film Festival. Like its predecessors, “Gett” enjoyed both critical and commercial success. And last year, Elkabetz served as a member of the prize jury at Cannes’ Critics’ Week.

From 2012, Elkabetz also served as president of Achoti (Sister), an organization set up by Mizrahi feminists. She worked as a volunteer, before the group asked her to be its president, said Shula Keshet, Achoti’s executive director.

“She focused on activities for the advancement and livelihood of women – and of people in general who live in poverty and are in very difficult financial circumstances – in fieldwork involving giving and concern for the other,” Keshet said.

“I’ll never forget an event we put on at Beit Achoti to which she brought dozens of pieces of clothing she was donating, and we sold them to finance our activity for the most invisible women and men in our society.”

Elkabetz is survived by her husband, architect Avner Yashar, 4-year-old twin sons, her parents and three brothers.

Her coffin will lie in state at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque from 11 A.M. to 1 P.M. on Wednesday. The funeral will begin at noon, and she will be buried at the Kiryat Shaul cemetery at 3 P.M.

MK Merav Michaeli (Zionist Union) eulogized Elkabetz in a Facebook post Tuesday. “Wonderful, beloved, beautiful, terrific, strong, wise, talented, fearless Ronit, whom I always looked at with admiration and love,” Michaeli wrote.

“We drew inspiration from each other. What a loss. For all of you, but especially for all of us women. And for me. My very dear Ronit, it’s hard to believe you’re gone. We are so lacking now.”

Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev said Elkabetz was “a lodestone” for women and the world of culture in general.

“For her, artistic creation was a mission. She served as an example and a social conscience on painful, sensitive issues in Israeli and Jewish society,” Regev said. “This is a huge loss for the film world and for Israeli culture. In the coming days, we’ll discuss holding a special event in her memory at the upcoming Cannes festival.”